HARO: Rigors of fact-checking diminished by online service

by | Nov 22, 2013 | Opinion

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Adam Kozak, Senior Reporter

If you use 10 units of energy for a task that requires five, you’re a doofus. You’re wasting your time. And if you’re a lazy journalist, that’s exactly how you feel most of the time fact-checking.

Lazy journalists think like this: most reporters do a good job. Names are spelled right, job descriptions are accurate, and numbers usually check out. So when I take time to verify all these little factoids, and find that these come back pure, I can’t help but wish I instead went bowling. Bowling makes me happy.

This hazy thinking is akin to guards without armour protecting a country’s treasure. Journalism aims to report facts to tell stories that are meaningful. Whether a story does that is dependant on the truth it purports. News that’s fabricated doesn’t just spread lies—it also weakens its own ability to be trusted in the future, and rightly so. It damages the integrity of journalism, which makes Help A Reporter Out (HARO), a service that links up journalists with sources, so dangerous. Thankfully, there’s Ryan Holiday.

In promoting his book Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, author Ryan Holiday used HARO, which claims to offer journalists credible sources and experts, but really just finds people who want to be quoted and are often promoting themselves in some way. Reporters pay to use the service, and anyone can sign up as a credited source.

As an experiment to show just how gullible journalists can be, Holiday pretended to be an insomniac, a vinyl collector, and even a boating expert—all of which he wasn’t—in order to dupe reporters into using him as an expert in their stories.

What happened next was balderdash.

What should have happened was some simple fact-checking by the reporters; if they had googled his name they would’ve found that he is actually promoting his book on manipulating media, and balked at the source.

Instead his name was printed in such fine publications as The New York Times, among others.

To call these journalists unprofessional, lazy and incompetent is bullseye-accurate. But calling them names and denouncing their personal flaws is missing the point.

At the root of the problem are the news organizations that allow reporters to use this service. Despite being duped, The New York Times, CBS, and ABC News still allow their journalists to use this easily-exploited service.

HARO has design flaws that allow it to be exploited through imitation or through PR seeping its way into journalism. When anyone can sign up and moonlight as an expert on anything without a verification process, this leaves folks the juicy option of promoting their own agendas and generating free press.

Part of the incentive HARO uses to get sign-ups is by offering free publicity for whatever they wish to promote. But this flies in the face of what makes a credible source credible. Helping journalists out with an interview is about contributing to the public discourse, informing people, or adding genuine context to complicated stories. It’s not another way to make money. It’s about credibility. With HARO, that credibility can be faked within 10 minutes via a sign-up form.

It’s a given that people who are selling a product or service want to make as much money as possible. If you’re an aggressive business person, you’ll stretch the name of “expert” to pretend to be all kinds of things. There ought to be no blame for this—that’s business. We can’t expect selfless virtue from pure profit-seekers. If you’re selling a motivational CD, you’ll also say you’re a counsellor, a life coach, or have a relevant view on anti-depressants. It makes sense; you’re selling whatever you can, and as much as you can.

Journalists can call such people out on their exaggeration, but the only gatekeepers of facts for journalists are journalists themselves; hence, fact- checking. Many journalists get paid per word or per story, and because journalists need to eat too, sources don’t have to be stone-cold, and the incentives in play clearly point to blending public relations and journalism. HARO is contributing to the degradation of journalism.

Journalists may have missed the easiest fact-check in the world, and the only reason is because they assumed HARO met the professional standard of journalism. Now that it’s clear that it doesn’t, journalists everywhere need to revert back to good old fact-checking, while personally banning the service for themselves, whether the news company they work for allows it or not.